This weekend, the second one in September, now (as of publication) passed, I will be doing something I have never done before: reading a second book in a row by Norman Mailer. I sense “T.G.I.F.” readers quivering with excitement out there. Such reckless weekend abandon, but there you go. That’s right. I’m bad. A wild man, uh-huh.
Mailer died of renal failure about three years ago, in November of 2007, some three months after completing the novel I have just finished reading, The Castle in the Forest. It is, among several other things, about the early childhood of Adolph Hitler told from the point of view of an S.S. officer inhabited by an intelligence operative from hell. Not long ago, I saw Mailer on Charlie Rose’s television show, promoting the book and saying he thought it was his best novel. This is saying much. I resolved to read the thing; after all, hadn’t I thoroughly enjoyed The Gospel According to the Son (the life of Christ told in the first person), Tough Guys Don’t Dance, and Why Are We in Vietnam? But it took me two years to work up to this one. Mailer exacts a price from his audience, and rightly so.
An example of this, in The Castle is more than 200 pages of minutiae concerning the art and craft of beekeeping or apiarian matters, something of an obsession for Adolph’s dad, Alois Hitler. Certainly very well and clearly written, even wildly funny as well as informative, I found these pages at least partially maddening and could not, for the life of me, reckon what Mailer was up to here. I finally settled on this being an extended metaphor for the mundane, even anal aspect of evil and an early inspiration for the Third Reich. I am, I think, at least partly correct.
The second book by my former neighbor in Brooklyn Heights is The Spooky Art: Thoughts on Writing, which buttresses my contention that Mailer could make a phone book fascinating. Here, almost at random, is a single sentence from that book about graffiti or “tagging,” a subject in which I have only the most remote interest: “[I]t looked as if graffiti would take over the city, when a movement that began as an expression of tropical peoples living in a monotonous iron-gray and dull-brown-brick environment, surrounded by asphalt, concrete and clamor, had erupted to save the sensuous flesh of their inheritance from the macadamization of the psyche, save the blank city wall by the exercise of their united brain, ready to paint the dead-ass wall with their equivalent of giant trees and petty plants of a tropical rain forest.”
Mailer’s famous obstreperousness is something I never saw on Montague Street in Brooklyn or while drinking in Capulet’s bar while he was there. I did, however, see it on television some years earlier and described here on Wikipedia: “A 1971 interview with Norman Mailer was not going well. Mailer moved his chair away from the other guests (Gore Vidal and Janet Flanner), and Cavett joked that ‘perhaps you’d like two more chairs to contain your giant intellect?’ Mailer replied, ‘I’ll take the two chairs if you all accept finger-bowls.’ Mailer later said to Cavett, ‘Why don’t you look at your question sheet and ask your question?’, to which Cavett replied, ‘Why don’t you fold it five ways and put it where the moon don’t shine?’ A long laugh ensued, after which Mailer asked Cavett if he had come up with that line, and Cavett replied, ‘I have to tell you a quote from Tolstoy?’”
Norman Mailer had a sense of occult realities (which I apprehended in inchoate ways early on in life, though I rarely voiced them), and he’d write about them as he did in his preface to the book Unholy Alliance, by Peter Levenda, about Hitler’s and Himmler’s sensibilities/beliefs along these lines.
“If magic is composed of a good many things, out-of-category forces that press against established religions, so magic can also be seen, in relation to technology at least, as the dark side of the moon. If a creator exists in company with an opposite Presence (to be called Satan, for short), there is also the most lively possibility of major and minor angels, devils and demons, good spirits and evil, working away more or less invisibly in our lives.”
Mailer contained all of these things — more or less and at one time or another — but nowhere more evidently than in the work he left behind. This evidence of things unseen, whether heaven-sent, from hell, or the unconscious is an earmark of every literary practitioner worth reading. If this seems an unsettling verity, Mailer had an observation there as well. “Culture,” he said, “is worth a little risk.”